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A 'stone soup' approach to programming can work pretty well

By Joshua Kukowski

The White Earth Science and Math Academy day camp has been going on since 1999 and has had measurable success in both outcomes and in process. This year’s camp had a lack of centralized funding, creating a need for multiple groups to work together to put it on. This stimulated each partner to really identify their strengths and contribute what they could.

In the old fable, “Stone Soup”, members of a hungry community brought their best contributions to make an amazing pot of soup, and that was what happened at this year’s White Earth Science and Math Academy. As you think about your programs that are built on partnerships and depend on partner contributions, consider how to pull out the best from yourself and others.

This blog post is not a prescription on how to develop new partnerships, program in Indian Country, or a justification for a lack of sustainable resources. It's merely a process and current approach we used when members of a community asked for continued programming. 

The day camp's partners gathered around a central theme of elevating Ojibwe culture, traditions and indigenous knowledge. With that clear focus, each partner could hone in on what they do really well and bring that to the day camp. The Boys and Girls Club of the White Earth Reservation brought staff, culturally appropriate foods and connections with the youth. The White Earth Tribal and Community College Extension Service brought vast expertise of indigenous knowledge of foods. The White Earth Tribal and Community College permitted us to use their wonderful facilities. The White Earth Natural Resources Department brought volunteers, mentoring opportunities and an enhanced knowledge of the land and customs to the camp. Two local schools, the Naytahwaush Community Charter School and the Circle of Life Academy, each provided staff, cultural expertise and an understanding of the kids. The University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies brought geocaching expertise and staff and the Extension Center for Youth Development brought staff, led some sessions and provided risk management expertise. There were countless additional partners who made behind the scenes contributions. They are too numerous to name, but I thank them too.

Is this an ideal way to program? That depends. It is valued that we create strong, high-quality, and intentional programs that have a great design behind them. A recent article on program innovation illustrates the need for a variety of program designs and includes how the community needs encourage us to innovate, how creativity encourages us to innovate, and how exploration encourages growth.

Our two-week summer STEM day camp did that, but the intentionality was on the process, the quality was dependent on the each partner and the strength was seen in our innovation. Our evaluations show that the kids had fun, learned and will be back again next year.

This process was far from perfect – and we as partners recognize that imperfection and are OK with it. We meet regularly to discuss our abilities, interests and strengths.

Do you use this approach? How do you bring your stones to partnerships? What circumstances encourage you to be creative and innovate? For us, we will likely continue bringing our stones again in 2016.

-- Joshua Kukowski, Extension educator

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  1. Great metaphor!
    And great food for thought. The University of Minnesota and Iowa State University have a professional development course on Partnership Training ( that really helped me to think about how to start, develop, and cultivate partnerships. What has stuck with me is the importance of each of the partners being able to identify and articulate not just what they bring to the partnership but also what they need or expect out of the partnership early in its development.
    And your reference to program innovation brings up the need to be brave to innovate. The article you mention asks us to re-calculate our risk – is the risk greater by not innovating and not recognizing new opportunities, or is the risk greater by an unsuccessful innovation? I’ve had several unsuccessful innovations that I’ve learned from and shared what I’ve learned, but this takes bravery in the face of funders that want outcomes. Partnerships like the ones being developed at the White Earth Science and Math Academy may be a way to show funders how and why the process is at least equally as important as the outcome.


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